Vilna Congregation Now a Mikvah, But It’s Always Represented Change

A rosehouse with ornate stained glass decorates is sandwiched between other rowhouses.
Vilna Congregation at its 509 Pine St. location in Society Hill | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Since its founding in 1904, Vilna Congregation in Society Hill has experienced its fair share of changes.

Most recently, on Oct. 2, the community dedicated its ritual bath Mikvah Mei Shalva, marking the space’s transition from a century-old synagogue to a full-time mikvah. Though the building’s upstairs space at 509 Pine St. will remain an education and prayer space for sporadic minyanim, it will primarily serve as Center City’s only community mikvah, according to Vilna Rabbi Menachem Schmidt.

The transition of the historic space represents the changing Jewish landscape in Center City: both a celebrated past and glimpse of the future.

“For me, it’s sad not to have that shul. It’s something that I miss,” Schmidt said. “For the handful of people that really appreciate the services that the community needs, and especially when it comes to this whole idea of understanding taharat hamishpacha (family purity laws) and what the mikvah represents, it’s a very important thing.”

According to some, including Chava Schmidt, Menachem Schmidt’s wife who helps run the mikvah, operating a mikvah supersedes the mitzvah of operating a synagogue, as it is considered an essential service to Jewish families who abide by the rituals of taharat hamishpacha. In this tradition, Jewish women are required to use the mikvah after menstruating, a time when sexual contact is also forbidden.

“As much as there’s kedushah, there’s holiness, in a shul, in a synagogue, that doesn’t compare to the holiness of the parents’ bedroom,” Chava Schmidt said. “You can daven in a kitchen, a living room.”

For the Schmidts, the transition of the space is still bittersweet. Since leading the community since 1989, Menachem Schmidt has seen hundreds of people filter through the shul. 

Beyond hosting minyanim and services, the rabbi most fondly remembers the kiddushes and meals Vilna hosted. For one year on Simchat Torah, a phrase circulated in the Vilna community: “Skip shul, come to kiddush.”

“It was singing; there was l’chaim; it was a whole LOCAL (joyous gathering),” he said. “It was a gathering of all kinds of people together.” 

Holly Cohen, a member of Vilna Congregation since the mid-1990s, remembers the synagogue’s gatherings fondly. She met her husband and started a young family at Vilna.

“We would sit there for hours, these young people, these young professional people,” she said. “And instead of going out to bars on Friday night, we were going to Vilna on Friday nights.”

With the buzz of the synagogue in the 1990s and early ‘00s, it’s hard to imagine that the decade prior, the synagogue was struggling to attract membership. This was a trend among Jewish life in Center City, which had waned substantially.

In “The Jewish Quarter of Philadelphia,” Jewish historian Harry Boonin writes that by 1994, Vilna was the only rowhouse synagogue remaining in the Jewish quarter of the city. 

The Schmidt’s revival of the synagogue 30 years ago was hardly its only transformation. Founded in 1904 by Abraham Aba Ben Yehuda Shaprio in a rented building on Parkside Avenue, Vilna was a sanctuary for Lithuanian immigrants. 

The synagogue, which changed locations several times in its early days, had trouble attracting congregants, and Shapiro created an interest-free loan program through the synagogue and advertised it in the newspaper to attract working class immigrants, according to Boonin.

By 1922, Shapiro’s son Bernard Shapiro took over after his father’s death in 1917, moving the congregation to its current Pine Street location and expanding the building and installing 12 stained-glass windows and a bimah on the main room’s north wall, the only place the pulpit would fit.

An April 27, 1990 article in the Jewish Exponent referred to the space, vibrantly decorated, as “a little jewel.”

Vilna now transitions once more to serve the changing needs of Center City’s Jewish population, continuing to represent a microcosm of Jewish community.

Cohen’s daughter Emunah Wircberg, who spent her early childhood at Vilna, now helps operate the Old City Jewish Arts Center with her husband Rabbi Zalman Wircberg. The arts center also has a Young Professionals Network to grow the young Jewish community in the city.

“People live in a city when they’re young and they’re single and then they’re starting to date and getting married, and they have one child, eventually, and then maybe a second child,” Wircberg said.

While some decide to move to the suburbs to grow their family, Wircberg and her husband are mostly concerned with building community among 20- and 30-something Jews already in the city, as well as attracting young couples and families to live there.

Vilna’s mikvah is representative of a foundational need of the Jewish community, according to Wircberg, aiding in the effort to support the flourishing community in Center City.

“Having a mikvah,” Wircberg said, “may have people stay longer. It might have a positive effect in that area.”


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